Why We Need to Prioritize Employment: It’s the Fear, Stupid

In moments of anger, I’ve written that tenured economists talking about jobs is like celibate priests talking about sexuality: they don’t live in the same world the rest of us do. This is unfair to some economists: a fair number desperately, above all else, want to do everything possible to lower unemployment. But I think too many do not realize that the fear of unemployment is poisoning everything. It is an existential dread that hangs over so many people’s lives. Here’s what I mean–the rise of the ‘Used-to-Haves’ (boldface mine):

I used to have a house. I used to go on vacations. I used to shop at department stores, get my hair done and even enjoy pedicures. Now, I don’t. I’m a member of the American “Used-to-Haves.”

Now, I’m renting an apartment and I’m desperately awaiting a check so I can pay the rent. Yet, I’m lucky to have an apartment that includes utilities. Despite my college degree from a prestigious college, and solid employment track record, I can’t get a job. It’s been so long since my corporate days, I now feel unemployable.

My age doesn’t help. But I’m as healthy as a thoroughbred, I appear quite young and would gladly accept a basic salary. I’m a bargain! But no. I’m freelancing for $15 an hour these days, but I used to earn $100 an hour. In fact, all the freelance hourly rates have been driven down to $15-30 an hour. To make ends meet, I also work as an aide ($13.75 an hour) and run a small local company. And my annual earnings are under $20,000.

I’m lucky to be in Massachusetts, where my health care is paid for, and fortunate to be of sound health and mind. But on days when I feel hopeless, I can envision myself 20 years from now, living in hardscrabble poverty. Female friends my age who are in similar financial circumstances are terrified of the future. If we can’t get decent paying jobs today, there’s little hope of getting a corporate job with benefits in the future. And during the past few years as we’ve struggled, we went through all of our savings, 401(k)s and anything left in the bottoms of our pocketbooks. So we can see ourselves as old, pathetic bent-over women, living in bus shelters, our ragged belongings in supermarket carts.

This fear of suddenly losing everything is the lodestar of U.S. politics today. It motivates the left, the right, and the (mostly non-existent) center. People won’t dare dream of a better future: what is the point when you’re just trying to maintain what you have?

This is nothing that couldn’t be solved by prioritizing job creation over a non-existent deficit ‘crisis.’ A tighter job market isn’t just about wages, but about hope (real hope, not a campaign slogan) and the absence of fear.

Firing some tenured assholes might help too.

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3 Responses to Why We Need to Prioritize Employment: It’s the Fear, Stupid

  1. Gingerbaker says:


    You know, I rip into you about many of your posts about gun control. But on most every other issue, I not only agree with you, but admire your ethos and staunch advocacy for social justice. This post demonstrates those virtues of yours in spades. Don’t ever give up the good fight. 🙂

  2. delagar says:

    This is my family, too. My husband lost his job two years ago. I’m still working, but what I make, even here in Arkansas, does not go far. We used to have enough money for vacations; enough to eat out frequently; enough to buy books and clothes and even art.

    Now I can’t buy shoes for our kid. Now we frequently run short of food money toward the end of the month — I’m choosing between paying the water bill and buying groceries. He takes on every bit of part-time work / piecework he can get, but it’s nothing next to what we need.

  3. Sideshow Bill says:

    How does this fear gain traction? I’ve seen that the news doesn’t even cover a huge rally in Raleigh, NC. How is it that a small individual fear will become a priority. Then again, maybe this is the same as “coming out” once you know someone who is scraping by, and it’s not just a “taker” maybe peoples focus will change.

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